Hooray for Hollywood!
The power of Tinseltown – the world’s most effective marketing machine – was on full display at this year’s Academy Awards. Unlike Washington’s partisan bickering that makes people tune out, Hollywood has the unique ability – when not in lazy mode – to shine the world’s biggest spotlight on people and events in a way that engages, endears and sometimes even enrages. People pay attention, and when that occurs, it can lead to monumental change.
Nowhere is that better illustrated than the impact Best Picture winner "Spotlight" is having on the national dialogue. The film follows a crack team of investigative reporters from The Boston Globe in their quest to uncover the pedophilia scandal in the Boston archdiocese.
This riveting true story, which millions will flock to see now that Oscar’s in the picture, has captured the public’s interest for many reasons: How the world’s most benevolent institution could look the other way as pedophile priests preyed upon the youngest among us; the lies of church leaders that the abuse was isolated, despite their knowledge of, and complicity in, the widespread scandal; the reassigning of sex-offender priests to unsuspecting new congregations; and, of course, the never-ending cover-ups.
But perhaps the single-most important factor in why "Spotlight" has grabbed our attention is the pervasive feeling among so many that church leaders still don’t get it. While Pope Francis has been leaps and bounds better than his predecessors in condemning the scandal and cover-up, the same simply cannot be said of many rank-and-file clergy. And, the pontiff’s actions notwithstanding, there is still considerably more he could, and should, be doing.
In response to the media attention garnered by "Spotlight," the Most Rev. Edward Burns, Bishop of Juneau, penned an op-ed in USA Today. Given that Burns is chairman of the "Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops," you would think that, if anyone "got it" regarding how to address the scandal and make genuine amends, it would be he.
You would be wrong.
In his commentary, Burns states, "In 2002, Pope John Paul II addressed sexual abuse in the church and called it ‘a crime.’ In light of this abuse … ‘the church herself is viewed with distrust.’"
How very regal of PJP II to label sexual abuse a crime! And good thing he clarified that priests raping children led to people viewing their church with "distrust." Truth is, some other words come to mind, but they are too blasphemous to print.
Burns then cites Pope Benedict XVI’s 2010 pastoral letter that stated, "It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse."
And that’s about it. That’s the whole kit and caboodle from the clergymen in charge of making sure our children are protected from serial pedophiles.
Seriously? What planet are people like this living on? The best they can offer is references to two pontiffs under whose watches the scandal exploded? And they wonder why the pews are empty, schools are closing, and there are 30 million ex-Catholics (making them the nation’s second-largest religious denomination).
It’s time for church leaders to wake up and address the white elephant in the room. Only then will the wounds start to heal and American Catholicism begin to grow again.
1) Admit that beatifying and canonizing Pope John Paul II in record time – the fastest in history – was a colossal mistake. Why? Simple. Because one way or another, he was complicit in the scandal: He was either responsible or irresponsible for what occurred on his watch.
But no matter how insulated he may have been, it simply isn’t believable that he had no knowledge of the crimes being committed. Which leads us to the more likely scenario: Pope John Paul II looked the other way on the sex scandals, choosing to bury his head in the hope that the problem would take care of itself. And that made the sin mortal.
Even worse was the direct enabling of predator priests and the subsequent cover-ups. Not only was appropriate action rarely taken, but in many cases, victims and their families were discouraged from taking the next steps and going public, with some being threatened with ridicule and excommunication. Even high-ranking church officials were not immune; many were told that if they cooperated with authorities, they would be subject to severe repercussions.
So unless John Paul II never read the papers, watched TV, or communicated with church administrators, he had to know. And that should have made sainthood out of the question. For the church to have so vigorously pursued it shows just how out of touch it has become.
2) Call out Pope Benedict XVI’s complicity. He was clearly aware of the missteps that had occurred under John Paul’s watch. So what did he do to redress those wrongs? Virtually nothing. Instead, he incomprehensibly waived the five-year waiting period after a person’s death, so that John Paul’s canonization could begin – rubbing salt in the wounds of thousands of victims and their families.
3) Perhaps most impactful would be to give Cardinal Bernard Law – former leader of the Boston archdiocese and the central figure in "Spotlight," whose now-proven cover-ups were monumental – the boot from Rome, sending him back to America. He should be made to face the music here, be it in a court of law, court of public opinion, or both. Either way, he should be stripped of the immunity-from-prosecution status afforded to him by living at the Vatican.
Remember, this is the priest who, despite being forced to resign in disgrace, was met with a royal welcome after fleeing. Pope John Paul II not only allowed him to retain his seat in the College of Cardinals (where he served on all eight of the powerful Vatican Commissions), but appointed him to an important post where he had enormous influence over American bishops.
The church is at a crossroads. It can continue to defend the indefensible, drag its feet, and watch its flock dwindle.
Or it can tackle the obstacles head-on, admit mistakes and renew its commitment to purge its ranks of criminals and predators, starting with Cardinal Law.
The more public pressure that is generated by films such as "Spotlight," along with churchgoers and their checkbooks disappearing, the more likely Rome is to respond.
As a human, a parent, and yes, a faithful Catholic, I implore the church, for God’s sake, to end the preying, and start the praying. After all, it’s the most Catholic thing to do.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected]